The Coronavirus pandemic can be understood as a biosocial phenomenon. The epidemic is emerging through social and biological processes. The virus lives in our bodies, its lifetime is embedded in ours. Although the virus duplicates itself (and mutates) to spread biologically, it engenders fluctuating sociocultural and political manifestations as it makes its way into different local worlds. Negotiating the biological and epidemiological reality of the epidemic to manage the social climate and maintain communal routines is inherently a sociocultural and political response. Yet, uncertainties surrounding the virus inevitably feed into the temporal shifts in how the epidemic emerges locally.
In Turkey, the government started taking measures against the Coronavirus outbreak weeks before the virus ‘officially’ emerged locally on 11th March 2020. Turkey closed borders with Iran and started imposing travel restrictions in February. Yet, despite being surrounded by countries with already high numbers of confirmed cases, and having tens of thousands of citizens returning from the umrah pilgrimage, Corona was nowhere to be found statistically. Given the growing distrust against the government and lack of transparency, many took their own precautions. Rumours spread about symptomatic patients turning up in hospitals. Without any test, the truth was never to be known. After the first positive COVID-19 test, a legal case was opened against doctors in a hospital who were secretly recorded stating that the numbers were much higher than known and due to increase very fast. One of them was soon asked to write a public apology letter for ‘spreading fear’ amongst people. The social and political responses to the Coronavirus outbreak in Turkey, between fearing, avoiding and accepting it, paved the way for dynamic biosocial shifts.
Before the first positive COVID-19 test was officially announced in Turkey, videos and tweets claiming that Turks are genetically resistant to the virus went viral on social media. Once people started seeing Coronavirus as a threat, local recipes that are good for strengthening the immune system against the virus, followed. On the one hand, a number of pseudoscientists and clinical doctors mushroomed on television programmes with groundless arguments favouring the claim that Turks have an ethnic ‘genetic privilege’ against the virus, and recommending local recipes, such as Kelle Paça Çorbası (Sheep’s Head and Trotters Soup), as an immunity-booster. On the other hand, many Turkish celebrities shared messages from Italy and beyond urging people to stay at home even before public measures were implemented. Although the opinions of Turkish pseudo experts and celebrities following “Western” models often appear to display polarised views (and they sometimes are), their practices are not necessarily always strictly divided. That local health care systems, cultures and practices are “constantly in flux, being renegotiated by those who use and are used by them” has been widely discussed in studies of medical anthropology (Wing Önder, 2007:30; Good, 1994).
Researching epidemics in the midst of a pandemic is intellectually stimulating. But for an anthropologist like myself – in lockdown and away from the field – it also means conducting remote fieldwork; a reflection based on observations that depend largely on news and social media, and how people choose to portray each other. Despite the empirical limitations of remote fieldwork, placing the social and political responses in Turkey within a wider cultural framework, allows to remotely address some of the questions raised by the Coronavirus outbreak locally: How do cultural norms and values get entangled in the sociocultural and political discourses of the Coronavirus? Are the processes involved in adapting to a crisis always harmonious? What happens when public health measures cause rhythmic shifts and clash with people’s everyday realities?
Drawing on Geertz, Erik de Maaker reflects on the social and political response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the Netherlands as an interactive process (2020). He suggests that ordinary people build new ‘models of’ living by interpreting and engaging with the ‘models for’ – such as social distancing – that the scientific experts and political leaders they trust provide. Moreover, he argues that expectations about how people will engage with and respond to these theories also influence policymakers and politicians in their decisions, which also holds true for the social and political responses to the pandemic in Turkey.
The widespread public health advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to protect against infection has been thorough handwashing and social distancing. In Turkey, the president, in his first public speech, promised to distribute cologne (a traditional alcoholic hand sanitiser) and facemasks to all 65 year olds and above. It did not take long for boroughs across Turkey to start disinfecting schools, mosques, public transports and streets. The ‘keep clean’ call was well received both socially and politically.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the call for social distancing, which is the second most repeated advice to slow down the rate of infection. Recent articles showed groups of men in masks and gloves carrying on their habits of playing okey (a Turkish version of Rummikub) in coffee houses. Women carried on their weekly gatherings over tea and coffee with their family and friends. But from the 12th March onwards, a day after the first Coronavirus case in Turkey was confirmed, the government announced that schools, cafes, bars and the majority of public places were to be closed. People were advised to stay at home and to not accept visitors. Congregational prayers would also be suspended.
Maintaining social rhythms require a synchronisation between time, space, bodies and people’s motivations. Modifying or removing one of these factors will often suffice to interrupt the rhythm of people’s realities and social routines. The variety of people’s responses to these rhythmic shifts are rooted in the multiplicity and complexity of their values, motivations and priorities. Once the congregational prayers got suspended in Turkey, many people followed the new guidance to pray at home, whereas some people chose to resist. For instance, some people in the cities of Şanlıurfa and Çorum disputed with the police to open the mosque doors for the congregational prayer on Friday. Suspending the Friday prayers meant disrupting a weekly collective practice and shifting the religious rhythm of the week. Some insisted that death was a reality of life and that if they had to choose they would rather die in the mosque. Many reiterated that they are clean and that they take ablution before prayer. How could a place associated with spiritual cleanliness that accommodates ‘clean’ people be a source of infection? Clearly, the ‘social distancing’ measures would not be as well received as the call to ‘keep clean’.
Sylvia Wing Önder’s ethnography “We Have No Microbes Here” from a Turkish village provides some useful insights. Wing Önder observes how her informants are “more ready to accept the idea of contamination if an outsider is involved” (2007:50), whereas people are more reluctant to see a close family member or friend as a threat of infection. She notes that whilst cleanliness from filth1, is usually accepted as a prerequisite for health, infection often is not seen as a risk that can emerge from within a safe social circle (ibid.). Parallels can be drawn between Wing Önder’s ethnography and people’s reluctance to see a risk of infection through contact with close family, friends and through religious practice in safe spaces (i.e. mosques) during the Coronavirus outbreak today. For some, the risk of infection or the cause of disease is more likely to be attributed to an outsider. A tendency which becomes especially apparent when the Coronavirus threatens to disrupt the rhythms and routines of people’s every lives.
Today, the mosques remain open in Turkey except during the Friday noon prayer, but people are advised to pray alone. Ironically, only last Friday, the ministry of religious affairs held a congregational prayer at a mosque in Ankara with ‘selected’ people by taking the ‘appropriate’ measures. The live streamed sermon drew on religious vocabulary and Islamic law to urge people to take the recommended measures in order to avoid getting infected and spreading the disease. Fang-I Chu writes about similar attempts of “mobilizing religious language to justify public health precautions” during the Coronavirus outbreak in Taiwan, which shows how political figures develop their ‘models for’ people by tapping into local religious understandings and value systems to maintain their self-respect and legitimacy (2020). Nonetheless, for the state to preach what it does not practice during VIP prayers amplifies the hegemony of the state over the public in Turkey on an unprecedented level. Moreover, it reaffirms that political responses to crisis are also shaped by the sociocultural and religious realities that the public engage with, even if it means denying the public the same right.
Nalan Azak, PhD
University of Oslo
1 Sylvia Wing Önder explains that filth, in her ethnographic context, is associated with excrement (human and animal), body fluids, sewage outlets, flies, parasites, as well as immoral attitudes like gossiping and the evil eye
Chu, F. (2020) Can the Might of a Taiwanese Goddess Prevent you from Getting the Virus? https://leidenanthropologyblog.nl/articles/can-the-might-of-a-taiwanese-goddess-prevent-you- from-getting-the-virus
De Maaker, E. (2020) Making sense in times of uncertainty: ‘models of’ and ‘models for’ the covid-19 pandemic. Leiden Anthropology Blog. https://leidenanthropologyblog.nl/articles/making-sense-in-times-of-uncertainty- models-of-and-models-for-the-covid-19-pandemic
Good, B.J. (1994) Medicine, Rationality and Experience: An Anthropological Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wing Önder, S. (2007) We Have No Microbes Here: Healing Practices in a Turkish Black Sea Village. Carolina Academic Press